Protecting Vermont's Children, Part Two: Assessing Neglect
School counselors in Rutland County say they’re seeing many more students who aren’t being adequately cared for at home. They say this form of child neglect is likely a ripple effect from the state’s heroin epidemic.
But federal statistics tell a different story. According to the National Resource Council and the Institute of Medicine, from 1992 to 2010, Vermont reported a 90 percent decline in neglect cases. And nationwide, Vermont ranks near the bottom when it comes to maltreated children who are victims of neglect.
Unlike physical abuse, allegations of neglect can be much harder to prove. And child welfare advocates worry that Vermont’s Department for Children and Families may not be fully investigating them.
"From the data, it appears Vermont is neglecting its neglect cases," says Kate Piper, who represented children in abuse and neglect cases for 19 years in Caledonia and Essex Counties. She’s now writing her doctoral dissertation in social policy and is examining how Vermont and other states respond to child abuse and neglect.
"From the data, it appears Vermont is neglecting its neglect cases." - Kate Piper, social science doctoral candidate and former child abuse attorney
Neglect can be just as deadly as physical abuse, Piper says.
“I think what’s hard about neglect is a lot of it is patterned evidence," she says. "Any one incidence may not rise to the level of getting DCF’s attention, but if you put all the pieces together it’s overwhelming.”
Cindy Walcott, DCF’s deputy commissioner, agrees that neglect allegations can be more difficult for caseworkers, but she says her department is not overlooking them.
Vermont has a much narrower definition of neglect, Walcott says, and DCF uses a category called "risk of harm," which she says captures much of what other states define as neglect. Walcott says many of the families DCF works with whose members have substance abuse problems fall into this "risk of harm" category.
Madison Akin, a counselor at Rutland Northwest School, says kids in those situations are becoming heartbreakingly common.
“Students will come into our office and they’ll be talking about drug use," Akin says. "They’ll show me how to crush and snort a pill, they’ll show me how to fill a heroin needle, they’ll tell me how drug deals go down.”
"Students will come into our office and they'll be talking about drug use. They'll show me how to crush and snort a pill, they'll show me how to fill a heroin needle, they'll tell me how drug deals go down." - Madison Akin, Rutland Northwest School counselor
But too often, Akin says, DCF’s decision whether to respond hinges on bureaucratic semantics – and she says the kids end up staying in unhealthy environments longer than they should.
"In my conversation with the child it becomes clear that the parent has passed out. So the requirement from DCF is, was she passed out or was she sleeping? And for a 5-year-old to be able to identify that difference is unfair," Akin says.
“It’s things like that and its things about hunger — was a parent available to tuck you in at night?" Akin continues. "You and I have a perspective about what we think that looks like in our heads, but when a child is so hungry that they eventually fall asleep, that is not being tucked in at night.”
Rutland resident Dana Cota pulls out her cell phone to show photos of a 9-year-old boy and a 6-year old girl she says have been neglected for years.
"This was taken when I brought them to my mothers house to go swimming in Mount Holly," Cota says of the picture of the boy. "You can see every one of his bones. You can see his rib cage, how his stomach is sunk in and everything. The kids, they don’t eat.”
The children’s father is in jail. Their mother has been arrested multiple times, and relatives think she has a drug problem.
Betsy Westcott, the children’s great aunt, says she takes the kids as often as possible to get them away from their mother, who Westcott says won’t give up custody because of the child support money she receives.
When asked to describe the family's household, Westcott paints a disturbing picture.
“Where to begin? They never have any food," Westcott says. "She [their mother] gets $600 a month for a food card. I have heard, not from the kids, but from other sources, that she sells the food card. There are always people in and out, all the time. They know more about drugs than I ever will. They have seen them put the needs in their arms — you know, I’m worried about their well being.”
Westcott says she has called DCF repeatedly with her concerns, and "the only thing they ever say is it's documented."
Cheryl Johnston, another family member, says they’ve been trying for years to get DCF to take action. The family has called the police multiple times and Johnston says at least they make surprise visits.
"We're trying to work with the family to address the issues and gain their cooperation and a common understanding of what the problem is." - Karen Shea, DCF director of field operations
“However, if you call DCF and ask them to go check on the children, they’ll call the people ahead of time and say we’d like to stop by tomorrow at 10:00 just to see how things are going. So that gives the parents time to go out and get a couple groceries and things like that," Johnston says. "I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Karen Shea, director of child protection and field operations for DCF, says there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the work they do and the protocols they need to follow. She says oftentimes DCF has begun working with an at-risk family, but because of confidentiality requirements, that information cannot be shared. And while DCF social workers will occasionally make surprise home visits, she says they try not to — on purpose.
“We’re trying to work with the family to address the issues and gain their cooperation and a common understanding of what the problem is," Shea says. "And we’re trying to help them to try and see us as an ally in their work towards improving the quality of their life."
Cheryl Johnston says that’s a noble goal. But she wonders how long her great niece and nephew can wait for that to happen.
This is the second installment in a series examining the strains on Vermont's child protection system. Find the rest of the series here: